With the big news this week that Captain America 3 is set to follow the events of Marvel’s Civil War with Tony Stark as the main villain – a possible plot that fans have been throwing around for quite some time now – it gets you thinking about some of the other big heel turns in film and TV history. And while some of these might not be quite as simple as good vs. evil – as it rarely ever really is – these good guys turned bad are a complex and dynamic bunch of divisive characters.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This show had its share of good guys turned bad, and usually with pretty heavy and heartbreaking results. First there was Angel, who lost his soul after a moment of happiness with Buffy, and then turned raging vampire on everyone. But the real heartbreaker was sweet, geeky, smart, courageous Willow, who had overcome her magic addiction and had just reunited with her girlfriend Tara. Except Tara was shot and killed, and then Willow turned dark and vengeful, unable to control her lust for magic and bloodshed, turning even against her friends. It hurts because Willow is such a beloved character, and to see her blissfully happy one moment and torn apart with grief the next, only to become the Big Bad she had always helped to fight is Earth shatteringly painful. And that is what Joss Whedon does to your heart.
We all know that Heroes was great for the first season and then quickly spiraled out of control into a mire of plots and questionable character motivations. There were a lot of good characters turned bad, just as there were bad characters turned good. Even Sylar tried out the good side a couple of times. But the biggest flip flopper of them all was Nathan Petrelli, who started out just as a general good-hearted dick, then turned political villain and betrayer of his people, then he turned good again, and then he was Sylar for a bit – or I guess Sylar was him. A lot of characters made a lot of choices that drastically changed the direction of their character and how we understood them. Nathan Petrelli never made any sense to anyone except to Nathan Petrelli, and no one knew where his changes of heart would lead.
In the realm of sympathetic villains, Magneto is pretty high on the list. Despite his violent feelings toward humans, his militaristic “us or them” mentality, and his ruthless pragmatism, given his history and the cause for which he fights, you can’t help but understand why he does what he does. As a child Erik Lehnsherr spent time in the Nazi concentration camps during WWII and had his mother shot in front of him. He spent a good part of his early life tracking down and killing everyone responsible until he meets Charles Xavier. While the two become close friends, they fundamentally disagree on how mutants should gain the acceptance of human kind. While this difference of opinion sets them irrevocably apart, even though they care for each other deeply, there are extreme circumstances which sometimes bring them together – like the Sentinels from X-men: Days of Future Past. It’s not often you see a movie where one character is both the good guy and the bad guy.
3. Star Wars
This one is pretty classic, and definitely one of the more simplistic black and white/good vs. evil variety. Everyone knows that Darth Vader is evil. They call it “the dark side” for a reason, because even the bad guys know that they’re bad. Intellectually, it’s kind of boring, but also super fascinating how well the characters still work despite that simplicity. But every bad guy had to start somewhere, and Darth Vader used to be an annoying little kid named Anakin Skywalker. Somewhere along the line, gradually and with a little help from conspiratorial forces and catalyzing events – massacring a whole village is pretty dark, after all – Anakin eventually chose the dark side, became the Emperor’s personal Sith Lord, and took the name Darth Vader. Of course, in his very last minutes he chose the good side and saved his son and the whole rebel alliance, so that’s cool.
2. Battlestar Galactica
This is another show with a lot of flip flops and moral ambiguity. I wouldn’t say really that anyone in this show is a bad guy – at least not in the Darth Vader-y, Snidely Whiplash sort of way. Everyone has their reasons and their beliefs, informed by some logic or experience or information. Sometimes characters are really misinformed, or become mentally unstable due to certain events or experiences. In any case, everyone has their own reason for making their bad decisions. Felix Gaeta is a classic example of a beloved character making a choice that you just can’t get behind. You want to root for him, but you just can’t. All you can do is hope that he eventually realizes his mistake and makes the right choice to change it all around. There is nothing evil about Gaeta. Just like everyone else on Battlestar Galactica, he’s just doing what he thinks is right – it’s just that not everyone can agree on what that is.
1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
This is another one of my favorite shows, because, like Battlestar Galactica, there really are no bad guys. There are certainly some pretty morally questionable characters, but most of them are just doing what they think is right under the circumstances. Even Gul Dukat has a heart that can be broken, and pretty tragically at that. There were quite a few characters who had some flip flops in this show – even the ever reliable Odo had his moments after discovering that his race were the enslavers of the Gamma Quadrant – and many had sympathetic and logical reasons for their betrayals. Even the subtly conniving Kai Winn had her heart in the right place – sometimes. But perhaps one of the most shocking betrayals of all was by Security Chief Michael Eddington, who became disillusioned with the Federation and joined the Bajoran resistance group, the Maquis. The Maquis as an organization tended to divide opinions wildly. Some called them terrorists, others called them freedom fighters. Sisko saw them as people just trying to survive a hostile situation. Eddington isn’t a good guy who went bad, he’s just a guy who wanted to fight for a cause in which he believed.